Updated on 02.19.10

The Gradual Shift

Trent Hamm

When I hit my financial bottom, I realized that a lot of things in my life needed to change. I went through my closets and sold off a lot of my entertainment collections. I started trying out every frugal tactic under the sun. I created a debt repayment plan and hammered some of my debts with the money I made from the sales and from the frugality.

Yet the biggest shift – naturally choosing not to spend money at every opportunity – was much more of a gradual change. I didn’t wake up one morning with complete success in this area. In fact, it took quite a while before my “default” mode when I went into a bookstore was not to buy a book. It took a long time before I stopped putting unnecessary stuff into my shopping cart.

Why did it take a long time? For one, the old ways were my normal behaviors. It was just the way I had done things my entire adult life, and bulldozing those patterns – especially bulldozing a lot of patterns at once – is easier said than done. For another, I still derived a lot of personal short-term comfort from those choices. I got a nice rush from owning a new book or something like that in the short term – it was only later on when that book was read (or sitting unread on my shelf) and I realized that it had gobbled down $15 or so that I felt bad about it.

What caused an overall mind shift away from that? Obviously, from the subject of this post, it was a gradual shift. However, there were three big key elements that convinced me to break the habits of unnecessary spending in my life.

First, I focused in on one or two key areas where I had a lot of money leaks. For me, the big one was the book store. I love to read, don’t get me wrong, but buying three or four new books a week isn’t exactly a habit that creates long-term financial security.

So, to start with, I really focused on my book-buying habit. I went on a lengthy sabbatical from bookstores. I just didn’t buy any new books.

The effect of this is that it forced me to discover and utilize other methods for feeding my book-reading hobby. I found PaperBackSwap (one of my first orders from there was the remaining four Douglas Coupland novels I’d never read, for example). I rediscovered the library – and I started utilizing the waiting lists for big new releases. I started swapping more books with friends as well.

By the time I gave up on the book store sabbatical, I found that my tendency to buy books with reckless abandon had been broken. I still pick up a book on occasion, but more often than not, it’s one that I’m pretty sure I’m going to read multiple times and thus mine extreme value from.

Second, I tried to be mindful of spending in other areas but I didn’t beat myself up over failures. I found that, time and time again, if I beat myself up over a mistake, I would be much more prone to just repeat that mistake.

A much better approach for me was to simply say, “I made a spending mistake. That’s okay, though – one mistake doesn’t break me. What can I do in the future to not repeat that mistake?”

From there, I’d try different things. I eventually adopted a new driving route to work, for example. I altered my evening routine so that I’d often have a lunch packed for me to take to work the next day so I didn’t have to eat out each day.

I was mindful of my mistakes and I constantly experimented. Sometimes things would click and just work. Sometimes I’d repeat a mistake a few times. It was a learning process.

Finally, I got more involved in communities and interpersonal relationships that didn’t value spending. I started spending more time with some community groups while spending less time with my buddies that were spending money left and right in a seemingly never-ending game of one-upsmanship. I focused a lot on a small handful of personal relationships with people who reflected where I wanted to be with my life and didn’t focus as much on relationships that pulled me away from that ideal state.

Over time, I found myself doing less “going out with the boys” to do expensive things and more evenings inviting people over to our house to play board games. I found myself filling my evenings with community meetings instead of going out with people who spent most of their time being negative. I joined groups that matched my interests instead of just trying to keep up with the others in my usual gang.

The people I surrounded myself with began to gradually reinforce good spending behaviors instead of reinforcing bad ones. I no longer felt a social need to have the latest and greatest thing – and that helped a lot.

A final tip that helped: I reduced my mass media consumption. I’m not talking about the advertisements – I’m talking about a lot of the content itself. Shows where people demonstrate unbridled excitement at the possibility of winning some material item. Magazines that talk breathlessly about the latest and greatest product. Whenever I see those things, I just toss them out. I have no need to be influenced by what other people want.

It takes time – at least, it did for me. Good luck.

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  1. Esther says:

    Great post. It’s encouraging without being overbearing. So much financial talk implies immediacy and while I believe people can and do change, I definitely don’t think that permanent change will happen over night. Small, encouraging steps are crucial.

    Another great site for book swapping / reviews is Goodreads. I’ve been a member for a few years and absolutely love it.

  2. Thanks for letting us know that it didn’t happen overnight! And occasionally slips happen!

    To often in our society, people assume that their is something special about our celebrities (and popular blogging sites) that make them a cut above the rest. But really, everybody is similar! We all make mistakes to some degree or another. But we get up and try it again. Slips are going to happen on rare occasions.

    I like the board game idea (I remember reading that you do this in the past), plus a side benefit it you get to flex the ole mind muscle :)

  3. Kathleen says:

    When I was a kid, my dream was to have a library like in the movies – a room with all of the walls covered in books, a big cozy chair and good lighting where I would just hang out and read all of the time. For a while my apartment was like that – books everywhere – and I really loved being surrounded by them. What broke me of the habit of constantly adding to my personal library was something that an author friend said – she said that it wasn’t the books themselves that she loved, it was the contents. Now I still will buy books but I also swap with friends, read on line, and only keep the physical book if the object itself has some meaning.

    After reading your article, I think I can apply this to other collections that I have, especially DVDs. Thanks for your candor about the ways that you broke habits that are unproductive for you and your family, and thanks for the good ideas.

  4. NMPatricia says:

    My first reaction to the post was “All well and good, but I want to know how long this wanting is going to last” but then I knew that no one can answer that – not even me. It is a process. I don’t go into bookstores anymore unless it is for a particular item well thought out in advance. Otherwise, it is like an alcoholic going into a bar. I still want. Not as much, but the change feels minutely incremental. I don’t go into stores because I feel deprived not having the money to spend as I would like. Do I need more clothes? No, but I like buying them. Do I need more (fill in the food)? Nope – have enough body mass for me and a few others. Feeling the “enough” feeling is hard to come by.

  5. Adam says:

    Haha, its fun how so many of us in the pf blog-o-sphere seem to have books as our “crack”. I’m the same way. A big book store is just irresistable, and I hate “used” books since I am a germophobe and imagine people reading on the john…I need a brand new book! Unfortunately, this is a habit that is super expensive! :) And leads to clutter like crazy.

  6. Bill says:

    How does reading a book many times justify buying it brand new?

  7. A great way to plaug my Entertainment Finance” leak…the f’ing LIBRARY!!!! This place rules!!! Who would’ve guessed???

    I haven’t plaid for a movie, cd or book in over a year!!!!
    Give it a try…your tax dollars pay for it.

  8. Little House says:

    I like how you focused on the initial “money leaks” and that you were able to figure out what those were. I use Quickbooks to track my spending and use the pie charts to revise my budget. I’m such a visual learner, these help me see my progress over the year.

  9. Meagan says:

    I usually have some sort of entertainment ‘money leak’ each year. It usually varies between books and crafts. It is generally part of my ‘budget’ for the year but I also try to keep things under control by using coupons and buying used. If I still want something by the time the 40-50% off coupon comes around I can have it. But not until then.

  10. Jeannette says:

    Trent writes:
    “I have no need to be influenced by what other people want.”

    Well, the thing is, what if a person wants something because they want it? Nobody tells them to want it, nobody makes them want it. They. Just. Want. It. (Think, people and cars. People and houses. People and almost anything.)

    Does exposure make an individual want something? In some cases, yes. If we don’t know it exists, we can’t want it. (I never really thought about houses until I spent time in the homes of friends who had purchased them in their 30s and started watching HGTV!)

    But there are plenty of folks who have lots of media exposure and do not overspend, lust after material stuff (in a negative fashion) or want the newest in whatever.

    Deleting desire is far more complex than not exposing one’s self to things. I could never set foot in a bookstore again and still want to own certain books. And no matter how much I might have other financial goals, I’m still going to want books in my life. Books that will remain in my home. (And yes, I use the library all the time AND the wonderful paperback swap.)

    AS NM Patricia says: “Feeling the “enough” feeling is hard to come by.” I don’t even know if it’s about enough, when it comes to books. Enough translates into available space.

    Our desires are often very deep and complex. And what I and others have learned is that it is rarely, if ever, about the “stuff.” It’s about other unmet needs.

    From observation, I’ve seen myself and others let go of certain “wants” when we are “full” of other things like loving partners, family and friends. But even then, people who have those also can still overspend.

    Limiting media exposure makes sense for folks who are susceptible. But you’d have to live in a cave with no net access to be totally immune from all that we’re exposed to these days (I live in a big city so I am exposed on a daily basis to more than people who live in rural areas.).

    And it’s the rarest person who does not collect something that they will always continue to want and to buy.

    The key is chasing after something when doing so becomes detrimental to you not only financially, but emotionally. (People who prefer to work on their cars than be with their family. People who’d rather read a book than socialize, etc.)

    Our spending really just masks our emotional issues.

  11. Kathy says:

    @Bill — each time you read the book, your cost per read goes down. I bought Damia (which I just re-read) new for $5.99. I’ve read it a minimum of 20 times. So, I’ve spent around $.30 a read. Yes, it would be even cheaper if I bought the book used, checked it out of the library each time or was lucky enough to have someone get it for me as a gift. Of course, the “cheaper at the library” also presumes that I return the book(s) on time.

    *shrug* this blog isn’t about being as cheap as possible, it’s about making good/better choices with your money. I suspect that Trent had the same problem I did. I would by books that I thought I was interested in. They piqued my interest while I was in the bookstore. I would get them home and perhaps read a chapter. And then it would sit because I wasn’t that interested in it. I have a lot of those books still sitting around. Now when I see a book that falls into that same category, I get it from the library and see if I read it before going out and spending the money on it.

    There are some books that I will continue to buy new (and in some cases in hardback) because the cost per read is so low. I will read it over and over again. I don’t want to wait to get it and I don’t want to have to return it somewhere.

  12. Denise says:

    Trent, this post is really good. I am trying hard to learn by my spending mistakes and then plugging that leak. My biggest leak is take-out food on the weekend. Yes, I have healthy food at home but that doesn’t cut it for me when I want something really yummy. I’m working on having quick, good food on hand that I can reheat or make quickly. I finally have mastered good pizza dough and that helps. I make more dough than I need and freeze it. I always have sauce and frozen pizza cheese on hand. My next foray is Chinese food and then Indian food. As for the book store, it is still a want but the library and paperback swap have pretty much filled that need. If I really want a certain book and can’t find it used, I save up my weekly mad money. It forces me to choose my wants carefully and that want is much sweeter when I finally get it.

  13. @Jeannette – absolutely! I have found that to be true for myself. Also, we tend to believe, or convince ourselves, that our wants will ‘fix’ something. Another website I follow, Flylady, says ‘you can’t “organize” clutter, you can only get rid of it’ and that is true. So many magazine covers, etc. will say “organize your clutter” and such, and we go out and spend lots of money on bins, carts, baggies, etc. only to find we need more places to store those! LOL Trent has blogged before about how stress caused him to overspend because his purchases gave him comfort. It’s detrimental, especially if you are stressed over money, but it is unfortunately a pattern for many of us. The term ‘retail therapy’ exists for a reason! Overcoming the desire to ‘have’ is much harder than deciding not to spend. And as the desire for a particular thing goes up, the willpower goes down.

  14. Lisa says:

    For new releases at my library I can get on the list days to weeks in advance of the book release. See if your library does the same thing. Planning my frugality makes it a better experience for me.

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